Advocates of racial preferences usually go ballistic when those of us who oppose them quote Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, especially:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
They reply with one version or another of “If King were alive today….” I replied to this argument at some length here:
In a recent post discussing some of the fallout from Martin Luther King’s birthday, I asked “What Do We Honor When We Honor Martin Luther King? (And Who Are ‘We’?)” There had been many protests of President Bush laying a wreath on King’s grave, nearly all of them criticizing him for betraying King by his opposition to racial preferences. Indeed, nothing seems to send preferentialists around the bend and over the top faster than critics of preferences quoting King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, as we always do.
And they always respond with one version or another of “if King were alive today” he would be a strong advocate of racial preferences. I have some reservations about this assertion, but on balance I suspect it is true. After all, all King’ followers, the NAACP (which had advocated a strong version of colorblindness in court for decade after decade), and virtually the entire Democratic party did an about face on colorblindness starting in the late 1960s, and there is no compelling reason to suppose that King himself would have stood against this trend.
Taking a page from the original meaning book, however, we can see that the proper response to the posthumous King’s probable position is, So what? King’s specific intent does not determine the meaning of the principle he evoked, either for his contemporaries or for subsequent generations. [P.S. It is also worth noting, however, as Randy did in his talk, that when we play the “if X were alive today…” game, we are not talking about actual intent but predicted intent, which is far different.] Of course in this case the text in question is not so dense and opaque, like “due process” or even “equal protection.” What part of wanting people to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin is so difficult to understand?
Now, King’s speech is not a part of the Constitution (at least not of its text), but it has achieved a well-deserved iconic stature. It gave voice to an understanding of equality that traces it roots back at least to some of the abolitionists, that achieved partial but limited success in the Reconstruction Amendments, and that, finally, was embedded in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the year following King’s delivery on the Mall.
Thus I beg to differ with a commenter on my King’’s birthday post linked above. Begrudgingly, “[f]or arguments sake,” she was willing “to admit the possibility that one can disagree with another’s ideals while still honoring the person.” I believe those of us who continue to resent benefits or burdens being based on skin color are honoring the meaning of Martin Luther King’s ideals much more fully than preferentialists who argue that if he were alive today he would agree with them.
Writing, as I am, about fifteen minutes from Monticello, it seems all too obvious to me that there are some ideals that are not discredited simply because their authors fail to live up to them.
Thus in quoting King we honor the principle he stood for, whether or not he would have continued to stand by that principle in the future that he was denied.
But if you want to see a real case of reversing the meaning of one of the heroic, iconic events in civil rights history, you need look no further than how Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and other opponents of colorblind equality in Michigan have stood the legacy of Rosa Parks on its head. (See, for example, the governor’s web site, here, and the event it links.)
Mrs. Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger. (The Montgomery buses had a policy that required blacks to fill up the buses from the back to the front; whites from the front to the back; and blacks to give up their seats to whites when there were no more seats.) The principle that she, and the bus boycot that followed her arrest, demanded was, first come, first served, without regard to race.
In stark contrast, racial preferences in admissions and hiring and assigning school students to elementary and high schools based on their race stands on its head the principle that Mrs. Parks stood for when she refused to stand. Abandoning the “without regard” principle is wrong, whether the justification is compensation for past wrongs or “diversity.”
Moving from segregation farther back into our past, one of the most shameful compromises that went into framing the Constitution was the decision to count slaves (never mentioned, but called “other persons” in Article I, Section 2) as three-fifths of a person for apportionment purposes. That was shameful, but by abandoning racial equality for racial preferences liberals and the civil rights movement have abandoned a fundamental principle just as clearly as they would have if they had abandoned the principle of “One person, one vote” and demanded that each black person’s vote be counted as the equivalent of 1.3 white votes.